Detailed examination of the extant organs in Oaxaca and studies of a variety of official documents from the colonial and later periods allow us to assemble a historical context for the role organs played in Oaxacan culture and to construct a timeline for their development and diffusion throughout the area.



Soon after the conquest of Mexico in 1521, Spanish galleons began to arrive regularly at the port city of Veracruz, and the vessels were packed full of the tools and objects necessary for transplanting the power, culture, and religion of Europe to the New World. Included in the cargo were tabletop organs, which would prove to be a powerful tool in the mission to convert the native population to Christianity. Since words are more easily memorized when sung than when spoken, the organ could provide a resonant outline for prayers and hymns. The importance of music for the conversion process was so well recognized by the King, Charles V, that those friars competing for appointments to be sent abroad were given priority if they had musical skills.

The newly claimed territory had been parceled out among the mendicant orders by Charles V and what is now the State of Oaxaca was awarded to the Dominicans. At the time of the Conquest the area was dominated by the great civilizations of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, though settlements of various less populous ethno-linguistic groups existed as well. Their hegemony was being threatened by the Aztecs, which explains the Nahuatl place names in Oaxaca to this day. Soon after the arrival of the Dominican friars in Mexico in 1526, they began to filter southeastward into Oaxaca via Puebla, cutting a diagonal swath across the State to the coastal trading center of Tehuantepec. From there, communication and trade could continue on to another important Dominican colony in Guatemala and the rest of Central America. The distribution of historic organs that we find today in Oaxaca corresponds roughly to the Dominican evangelization route, which in turn corresponds to the earlier prehispanic settlements and trade routes (click here to see map of the location of the organs).

One wonders how the natives reacted when they first heard the full sound of a pipe organ. Wind instruments had figured prominently in pre-Hispanic music, and the conch shell trumpet, often elaborately carved and decorated, was used in ritual context by the priests to invoke the God of the Wind (it is still used in many Oaxacan towns today to announce important events). If the power of the sound reflected the power of the god being invoked, what better evangelizing tool could there have been than an organ, a wind instrument like the conch shell trumpet, but with a volume of sound that was multiplied many times over by the number of pipes it contained.

Within just a few years after the Conquest, the indigenous population was involved in all aspects of European music—singing in the choirs, composing music, playing and building instruments—and organbuilding workshops, directed by Spaniards using indigenous artisan labor, began to appear in Mexico City. There was a great demand for organs, since a new church was not considered to be complete without one, and the organ was promoted by the Church as the proper instrument to accompany the liturgy.



It is likely that these first organs could be moved around easily on their tables in the same way that saints are carried in processions today. They could be taken outside and used in processions, outdoor masses, and large scale conversions in the open air chapels or temporary adobe churches, which were all that were available at first. In the meantime, huge stone churches and convents, such as those in Cuilapam, Teposcolula, Yanhuitlán, and Coixtlahuaca, were under construction, a process often lasting more than 100 years.

As the structures and needs of the original churches grew, so did their furnishings, including the organs. Table organs were eventually accompanied or replaced with larger, fixed or stationary (unmovable) organs, which reached their greatest dimensions in the largest churches and convents. An example of just this process is revealed in documents from the archives of the Oaxaca Cathedral. An organ was already in use in Oaxaca City in 1544 in the original Cathedral building, supposedly on the present site of the church of San Juan de Dios, before the present Cathedral was built. In 1560 this organ, presumably a portative instrument, was moved to the new Cathedral building, located at the present site, and played by the organist Domingo de Alavez from 1555 – 1564. However, by 1569 it had become clear that this small organ could not sufficiently fulfill the needs of the larger establishment, so a new “fixed” organ was commissioned from the organbuilder Agustín de Santiago with the financial support of the (Dominican) bishop at that time, Fray Bernardo de Albuquerque.



Even after organbuilding activity had begun in Oaxaca, the pipes, the most complicated part of an organ, may have been imported from Mexico City until there were specialists in Oaxaca who could make them. The Codex Sierra records community expenses in Santa Catarina Texupan (now Santiago Tejupan) for 1552 by means of a combination of indigenous pictographs and Nahuatl text written with European letters and peppered with Spanish words (click here to see the reference). A box of flutes (“caxa de flautas”) was bought from Diego Gutiérrez in Mexico City for what was a considerable amount at the time—180 pesos. The cost suggests that these were not common flutes, but rather the pipes for an organ, and that the other less complicated components—the case, bellows, and interior pieces of wood and leather—were made locally. A second reference notes the payment to the people who were sent to Mexico City to retrieve the pipes.

The way in which organs were transported from Mexico City to Oaxaca is clarified by a document from 1606 in which a scribe from the Chocholtec community of Santiago Teotongo registers a payment of 2 pesos and 6 tomines to five men for carrying an organ from Mexico City to Santa María de la Natividad Tamazulapan, one of the main Chocholtec centers (click here to see the reference). This tradition continued into the second half of the 19th century, as related to us by the former organist (now deceased) from Santa María Alotepec, located in the mountainous Mixe region of Oaxaca. An organ was ordered by the community and when it was finished, the whole village, including the organist´s grandfather, then a young boy, walked three days to Oaxaca and back again to retrieve the pieces of the organ. This boy carried a few pipes on his back, sustained by a tumpline across his forehead. Once all the pieces were in the church, the organbuilder (ensamblador) came to assemble the instrument.



Dominican church construction activity started around 1550 and continued at an astonishing rate for about 25 years. At this point, it began to taper off because the population, i.e. slave labor, had been so drastically reduced by disease since the Conquest. Severe earthquakes during the 17th century resulted in the subsequent rebuilding of many churches, such as the Oaxaca Cathedral, and most of the existing older buildings in Oaxaca today date from the 18th century or later.

By the mid-17th century, the population had begun to rebound and the economy to flourish with the commercial development of natural resources. The most lucrative product by far was the cochineal insect (“grana cochinilla”) used to make the costly but color-fast red dye that would ultimately be used to color the uniforms of both the British “Redcoats” and Napoleon’s troops. By the 18th century Oaxaca was a wealthy place indeed and private patrons of the arts focused their attention on the refurbishing and decoration, as well as construction, of churches in their communities. Some of Oaxaca´s most outstanding organs, retablos, paintings and interior decoration date from this period.

The Dominican infrastructure was still strong enough to unite the dispersed settlements under one religious culture. Their seminaries dotted the state of Oaxaca and continued to be centers of intense evangelizing activity. In 2001 an outstanding collection of early 18th century music manuscripts, produced in the seminary of Nejapa near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, was discovered in the neighboring community of San Bartolo Yautepec (see Seventh Festival 2009). The richness of the music in Latin, Spanish, and Zapotec attests to the energy of the Dominican mission even in this remote area.

Nevertheless, by the late 18th century (from the 1780s on), the religious power structure had changed in favor of the secular clergy and to the detriment of the Dominicans, whose former grand presence and influence in Oaxaca was practically destroyed. Then around the 1820s, the Oaxacan economy began a slow decline when less expensive, high quality, synthetic dyes replaced cochineal. This meant that within a period of less than 50 years, Oaxaca lost two crucial unifying and energizing forces which even to this day may not have been adequately replaced.


The Reform Laws of 1854 and the consequential separation of church and state did not have as negative an impact on organs as might be expected. Organs continued to be commissioned and built in Oaxaca at least until 1872 (the latest dated Oaxacan organ) or ordered from Puebla until the 1890s, though perhaps not at the same rate as during Oaxaca´s more prosperous period. Most churches had an organ by this time and there may have been more incentive to maintain the existing instruments than to order new ones. Even though the organ´s appearance changed considerably beginning around 1780 in accordance with neo-classic taste (see the section on Organ Decoration), the mechanical aspect of its construction continued as before with only minor adjustments (see the immediately following section on Technical Characteristics of the Organs).

Organs, altarpieces, paintings, and refurbishing projects commissioned during this period, were usually financed by the lay confraternities (cofradías) rather than the Church. Prior to the Reform period, the clergy had controlled church income and oversaw the financing of any project related to the organs. In the post-Juarez era, the state would have controlled the funds if given a chance, but it seemed to have been outmaneuvered by the cofradías. The churches were still fully functional and supported in their communities, but any income was quickly converted into goods, such as a new organ or an organ upgrade, rather than left as cash, which could be easily confiscated by the state.

Support for community bands and commissions to local composers also proliferated. The IOHIO has discovered piles of brass and wind band instruments imported into Oaxaca in the 1880s and 1890s as well as wooden trunks stuffed full of both sacred and secular band music. These compositions were written specifically for a particular community and often included special masses for the saint´s day celebration, Corpus Christi, or Holy Week. The discovery of these works, as well as older manuscripts such as those found in San Bartolo Yautepec, has engendered renewed interest and pride in their musical traditions among the inhabitants of these communities, which are often remote and declining in population. Recognition of the breadth and quality of their cultural heritage has resulted in efforts both to revive some of the old traditions and to preserve the remnants of the organs that had long been regarded as useless old pieces of furniture in the choir loft.

The long tradition of organ building, refurbishment and replacement in Oaxaca has left a wealth of organs from various periods in various parts of the state. By collecting and analyzing data from these organs, regardless of their current condition, it is possible to discover the major characteristics that defined Oaxacan organs. The next section describes these technical characteristics in detail and shows how the organs differed from their contemporary instruments in Spain and the other parts of Mexico.

Characteristics >